Friday, April 18, 2008

This week, are we keeping one holiday or two?

I'm trying to write a post about how Chag haPesach and Chag haMatzot were originally two separate holidays, but its just not coming together. I think this is because I'm not entirely convinced of the truth of the proposition.

According to Sarna, we can see that Pesach and Matzoh predate the exodus because in the Bible neither term is glossed; the author (ie God) seems to assume his audience knows what both words mean. Sarna also tells us that Mazoh's etymology is unclear, but seems to be connected to barley, the grain that blossomed in Israel during the month of Nisan. He suggests Pesach was first a shepherd's holidays celebrated on the 14th of the month, at the eve of the full moon, when lambing was about to begin. The Matzoh festival, he continues, was something else, a 7 day feast which began on the 15th of the month. It was kept by farmers who brought offerings to God to mark and to ask for divine favor at the beginning of their harvest.

Later (after the Exodus, perhaps?) these two holidays were combined, though hints to the original separation can be seen in the Bible. Examples include the places where the Matzoh holiday is enjoined alone, with no accompanying mention of Pesach, and the three times we are told to bring the Pesach on the 14th of the month, before the start of the 7 day Matzoh Festival.

Like I said, I'm not quite convinced this is a true accounting of our holiday's development. More importantly, I agree with those who say that at this late date it hardly matters: For thousands of years we, the People of Israel, have celebrated a single national holiday of liberation. I don't discount that holidays evolve and change - the seder was added years later after all -but the discrete holiday that holds meaning for me is not the holiday of the ancient shepherds and farmers. Its not even the holiday celebrated by the Sages of Benai Brak. The holiday that matters to me, the holiday that matters to all of us, is the holiday we celebrated as children. This is why we're all so resistant to changes to the seder's food and music. This is why the first seder away from home is always such a stressful challenge. We want what we remember, because only what we remember holds meaning. If any of the details are wrong - details that according to all theologists are meaningless - we resist, because their absence makes the holiday seem foreign.

Where Pesach comes from is an interesting question, and one for competent scholars, but it is not a question for this week. This week we speak of our national history, but in reality we're celebrating our personal history. The seder with its well-remembered songs and food serving as cues reminds of our parents, our childhood, our innocence. And it is these memories that are the source of the holiday's great and irreplaceable pleasure.

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